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Psychologists Argue Loot Boxes In Some Games Are 'Akin To Gambling'

Kotaku Australia logo Kotaku Australia 19/06/2018 Alex Walker

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A comment paper published in Nature Human Behaviour argues that loot boxes in some video games, including Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, FIFA 18, Halo Wars 2 and For Honor, can "meet the structural and psychological criteria for gambling".

Massey University's Aaron Drummond and University of Tasmania's James Sauer conducted an analysis of 22 games over the past couple of years that featured loot boxes, ranging from shooters like PUBG and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare to more casual titles with less competitive offerings like Need for Speed: Payback. The games were then measured against the definition of gambling outlined by British psychologist Mark D. Griffiths, which lays out five criteria for distinguishing gambling from other measures:

- The exchange of money or valuable goods;
- An unknown future event determines the exchange;
Chance at least partly determines the outcome;
- Non-participation can avoid incurring losses;
- Winners gain at the sole expense of losers.

"We decided to consider [the final] criteria satisfied if players were able to gain some form of competitive advantage over other players (so when Loot Boxes yielded functional rewards rather than just cosmetic rewards)," Dr Drummond explained to Kotaku Australia over email.

A sixth criteria - whether the items obtained in-game could be converted into real-world money.

The 10 games that fit the authors' criteria for gambling, psychologically and structurally, were as follows: Call of Duty Infinite Warfare, Fifa 17, Fifa 18, For Honor, Halo Wars 2, Madden NFL 17, Madden NFL 18, Need for Speed Payback, Assassins Creed Origins and Mass Effect Andromeda.

The last two games are a little quixotic, in that Origins is a singleplayer game and Andromeda's multiplayer being a co-operative experience that has little to no impact on singleplayer progression.

© Supplied According to Dr Drummond, Origins and Andromeda fit the criteria because in-game purchases still allowed players to increase their in-game power relative to others, even if they are not directly competing. "I would argue that there is still a form of competition being encouraged between players and loot box rewards can provide players with the ability to score higher than other players," Dr Drummond explained.

"Mass Effect: Andromeda is similar in that it is cooperative only, but again it does mean that some players will have more powerful characters, and we know that even when cooperating, social comparisons mean that we want what other people have."

The comment paper was originally written in December. At that time, Middle-earth: Shadow of War and Star Wars: Battlefront 2 were also classed as fitting the authors' criteria, although after microtransactions were removed from both games they were dropped from consideration.

The purpose of the paper is to encourage a "reasoned, sensible, evidence-based discussion about ethical and sustainable practice" around monetisation models. "As we’ve tried to point out, there seems to be an important difference between those that meet all the psychological criteria for gambling and can be cashed out, those that can’t be cashed out but meet the psychological criteria for gambling, and those that neither meet the psychological criteria for gambling nor can be cashed out," Dr Drummond said.

Dr Drummond and Dr Sauer were concerned by two facets in particular: the ability to on-sell items for money, as has been seen in CS:GO and PUBG, and the use of a "variable ratio reinforcement schedule".

"This is where, on average, someone will be rewarded with a high-value reward on average after a given number of openings of a loot box," Dr Drummond explained. "Variable ratio reinforcement is one of the most powerful behavioural learning schedules - it results in people acquiring new behaviours swiftly and repeating them often in the hopes of a reward. We've known about these schedules and their power for around 60 years, but their adaptation to the video game environment is arguably relatively new, and the rise in the practice of using loot boxes which employ these schedules has grown rapidly in the last 2 years."

Dr Drummond emphasised that they weren't looking to spark a panic or outrage, but a more nuanced conversation about how loot boxes are used. He added that a useful step forward could be the addition of loot box mechanics into parental advice ratings, like those issued by the Classification Board or ESRB overseas on retail boxes.

"The aim shouldn't be to stigmatise the games, but to provide consumers and parents with information that allows them to make the best decision for themselves or their children."

The full comment paper can be read over at Nature.

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